October 26, 2012

Paintings on the Walls, and Dancing on the Floor


When the Congolese choreographer and dancer Faustin Linyekula ventures onstage — a raised white platform smack in the middle of the atrium at the Museum of Modern Art — he begins with minute movements in which his fingers splay and wiggle indecisively. He then lowers his body to the floor with buckling limbs as his feet press down like putty.

For better or worse, Mr. Linyekula, who performed on Wednesday afternoon, is a master of the shiver dance. His new “What Is Black Music Anyway.../Self-Portraits” is part of the museum’s “Some sweet day” series, which pairs six choreographers in selected showings. Later that afternoon, Dean Moss, an American experimentalist, presented “Voluntaries.”

Despite Mr. Linyekula’s conspicuous solo presence, the real vigor in “What Is Black Music Anyway,” as its title attests, is found in the music. Sharing the stage with Mr. Linyekula is the nimble Congolese guitarist and composer Flamme Kapaya and the South African singer Hlengiwe Lushaba. Soulful, Ms. Lushaba prowls across the stage with raised arms. “Take me to the Congo River where my heart lies,” she sings, at first as a plea and later, edging toward hysteria.

Mr. Kapaya’s harsh strumming sends reverberations throughout the atrium’s soaring ceiling while Mr. Linyekula, wearing a red shirt and black pants, runs circles around the stage. But after the heady buildup, the tone shifts abruptly. Ms. Lushaba, joined by Mr. Linyekula, sings “Buya,” a South African folk song. It’s beautiful, mournful music, but it doesn’t make up for this work’s lack of ambition.

Mr. Moss, in collaboration with the visual artist Laylah Ali, uses a more stringent approach in “Voluntaries,” which takes inspiration from the radical white abolitionist John Brown. The work marks Mr. Moss’s second artistic venture with Ms. Ali, who is best known for her “Greenheads” series of two-dimensional figures and is credited with dance dramaturgy. This makes me nervous: Why would a choreographer cede such a thing to a visual artist?

As it stands, “Voluntaries” is an enterprising, driving and ultimately jumbled piece of dance-theater. The dancers, wearing Roxana Ramseur’s handsome gray-toned costumes and soft taupe shoes, march onto the stage with militaristic rigor and line up behind it while gazing out — their expressions conjuring the frozen faces of Ms. Ali’s greenhead figures. One by one, they re-enter the stage; the first, Cassie Mey, performs bourrée steps on demi-point as her arms rise and fall behind her back like wings.

Mr. Moss’s appropriation of “Swan Lake” is a diabolical twist, but his predictable adagio choreography, here and elsewhere, makes little impact unless the exacting Ms. Mey is dancing alone. A lack of unison is another distraction, especially in the final dance, a rendering of an exotic harem divertissement. In this exploration of radicalism and violence, Mr. Moss’s severity works best when he’s being maniacal, not coy.

A voice-over conversation between Mr. Moss and his father, Harold G. Moss, who was the first black mayor of Tacoma, Wash., offers a personal, contemporary view on radicalism. (Rebellion, after all, is in Mr. Moss’s DNA.) In depicting violence, he also mines his own “American Deluxe,” a piece from 2001 in which dancers hurled mirrored frames at each other on a stage resembling a boxing ring.

In “Voluntaries,” the frames and movement are resurrected. Kacie Chang and Sari Nordman, standing on white platforms on opposing ends of the stage, toss the frames into the center as Mr. Moss and Asher Woodworth scamper into the mess, trying to replenish the piles. Every so often they are hit, which causes the women to offer an insincere squeal: “Aw!” Then, they beat the men even harder.

Mr. Moss concludes with a song: “Snowden’s Jig,” performed by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, refers to the Snowdens, a black musical family who may have influenced the creation of the Southern anthem “Dixie.” (It is credited to Dan Emmett, a minstrel performer.)

For Mr. Moss, it’s another radical act. To be confronted with such aggression in a space like the atrium borders on shocking, and for that Mr. Moss is brave; he charged the space. But as a piece of theater, “Voluntaries” jerks you around: even though a work like this should suffocate its audience, Mr. Moss has jammed his dance with more ideas than air.


  “Voluntaries” by Dean Moss  -  photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times